(all photos digiscoped by Shaun Robson)
Since the early days of digital cameras Birders have been experimenting with the best way to get good shots through their telescopes. Fifteen years on and we now see the amazing flight shots that Justin Carr is taking.
The great thing about birding and digi-scoping is that there are many ways to gain satisfaction. Whilst some use the latest camera formats and specially designed brackets to get superb images of birds which are well beyond that of a regular DSLR when distances are involved, there are no doubt many, like me, who want to try and use regular kit, which is cheap and light weight. This short piece hopefully describes an alternative approach which, with practice, can deliver some acceptable results. Enhancing and not distracting from day to day birding.
In 2010 I started using a Canon Powershot S90 with my Swarovski ATS 65 with 30x wide angle fixed lens. I recently changed my telescope to the fabulous ATX 85 with its 25-60x zoom. Shortly after, I changed the camera to the Canon Powershot S110. It’s early days with S110 but I am not yet convinced that I have really gained anything. Thankfully my partner’s using the old S90 so I can still borrow it from her if the need arises! The Powershot’s have the essential facility to store custom settings. This means that you can switch it on and have the zoom you want, the focus and exposure mode, ISO setting etc. This is a real help in trying to capture that unexpected moment. It also saves time wasting removing vignetting and fiddling with the huge number of variables that modern cameras present.
The key factor which reduces the weight, does not interfere with regular scope use and eases pressure on the bank balance is the method “connecting” the camera to the scope. A plastic piece of pipe crafted to fit is all that it takes! Having taken several key measurements I bought the closest fit from my local DIY store and with a little bit work in garage I had the perfect light weight “adaptor” for £1.09.
The vital statistics are the internal diameter of your telescope eyepiece with the eye cup extended. The external diameter of the lens on your camera when set to the zoom you intend to use. The latter needs to fit inside the former to give the necessary stability and ensure perfect alignment. The depth of the tube can be achieved with a bit of trial and error. Estimating it is easy, it’s the distance the camera is from the eyepiece which produces no vignetting. Best to over-estimate and then reduce the depth of the tube till you reach perfection. You might be lucky and find the perfect pipe that requires little or no work. Otherwise a good file and some sandpaper will soon produce the finished article.
Given that this method involves holding the camera to the scope, minimising shake is critical. I therefore prefer an angled eyepiece on the scope. This allows me to set the scope up with a low centre of gravity by only partially extending the legs of the tripod. When I am really trying to get a decent shot (as opposed to firing off a few record shots of a just found goodie) then I also spread the legs wide to provide even more stability. The plastic ring means that when you present the camera to the eyepiece the picture should be ready to take and should be centred perfectly with no room for movement. Holding the camera completely still requires practice but it won’t take long before you find out what works for you. I no longer use a shutter release. I tried but it was just too fiddly and took more effort than it was worth.
Make sure that the scope is sharply focused on the bird before you present the camera. The beauty of this technique is that if the bird moves, removing the camera and refocussing takes a second.
In my experience talking to other birders, too many are tempted by too much zoom on either the scope or the camera (or both!). My best shots are achieved when I minimise both. With my current equipment I shoot at 30x on the scope (to prevent vignetting) and 50mm equivalent on the camera. This allows the maximisation of shutter speed which is of course the other key ingredient in reducing shake and an un-sharp or even blurred image. You can always crop on the computer when the pictures are downloaded. The Smew in the attached picture was more than 150m away yet after cropping a reasonable record shot of a rare patch visitor was achieved. It would have been easy to take a picture with the bird filling more of the camera screen but I know that getting anything even approaching acceptable would have been nigh on impossible in late afternoon January light.
I always set the camera to take the biggest file sizes this side of RAW, as I don’t understand RAW. I keep the ISO at 100 whenever I can but increase to as much as 400 in poor light. I set the auto focus to centre or spot whichever the camera allows, this increases the chances of the camera focusing on the bird and not the vegetation, especially when you operating over a greater distance. Following advice from other digiscopers I use the aperture priority setting, by always selecting the smallest f number I can achieve the fastest shutter speed. Given the often dull weather in Britain my custom setting is to over expose by 1 stop. On the Canon this can easily be adjusted when necessary but I find that more often than not this setting produces brighter and better images.
Here in this article are few shots taken over the last 4 years at home and abroad. Whether you are after some beautiful pictures of birds or simple record shots for your Patch Watch Challenge I hope this technique is of interest and some help. Happy digi-scoping.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Stijn de Win for introducing me to concept of “connector rings” in Thailand in 2009.